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How to Bet the NHL Playoffs: Ignore All of the Noise

How to Bet the NHL Playoffs: Ignore All of the Noise article feature image

Don Wright, USA Today Sports. Pictured: T.J. Oshie, Kris Letang

  • Betting on hockey can be thrilling and frustrating -- but it can also be profitable, especially in the postseason, if you stick to some core principles.
  • Michael Leboff runs through a few tips to keep in mind, including how to spot when the public is overreacting to a recent result.

The NHL Playoffs begin on Wednesday, which means that for the next two months, you’re going to hear the word “grit” thrown around like it’s the teacher’s gerbil on Pet Day at your kid’s preschool.

It also means that for the next few weeks we’ll get involved in the most fascinating betting market on the planet. I already think betting on the NHL is thrilling, and I’ve found a way to have some success speculating on hockey, but I’m of the opinion that betting on the NHL postseason is the best way to lay a foundation for good gambling habits, even if you don’t watch or bet on hockey normally.

Generally speaking, you have a better chance of being successful betting on the NHL than you do on more popular sports like the NFL, college football or NBA. Since the betting handle for the NHL is a lot smaller, the lines are a little softer and you can make more sense of the market.

And since the postseason eliminates a lot of the off-ice variance (travel, rest, etc.), it’s a more controlled betting environment for novice punters to learn some best practices to apply to other sports.

Here are a couple of good betting habits that will help you have a better chance at success betting on the Stanley Cup Playoffs (and all other sports, too!).

For a general guide on how to bet on hockey, click here.

The market overreacts in the postseason — and that’s good news

Betting markets are incredibly efficient. In fact, the closing number is the best way to judge the probability of a single game.

Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that Game 1 of the Capitals-Hurricanes series closes with Washington as a -130 favorite. Sounds reasonable, right? Now, let’s say that the Capitals blow out the Hurricanes, 5-0, in that game.

Let’s also assume, just for the sake of this exercise, that both teams are 100% healthy in this game and no player gets hurt. That means that the same two teams, on the same amount of rest, will be playing each other in Game 2.

The only thing that will be different is the market. You can be pretty sure that the odds for Game 2 will be shaded towards the Capitals, despite the fact that just a day ago the market suggested they should be -130 (54.3% implied probability) favorites.

Oddsmakers know that bettors, most of whom are susceptible to recency bias, will naturally lean toward Washington in Game 2.

This happened last year in the first-round series between the Penguins and Flyers. The Penguins, who were the home team, won Game 1, 7-0, as -185 favorites. The Flyers were +160 that game. The next game the Pens were up to -215 with the Flyers at +185. Philadelphia went on to win Game 2 on the road, but that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you were virtually told what the odds should be in that game and were able to realize: Hey, this line is 25 cents higher than the one for the same matchup 24 hours ago. I should bet this.

Interestingly, teams generally bounce back well from big losses in the NHL Playoffs. According to some research done by my colleague Evan Abrams within our Bet Labs database, NHL teams that have lost by three or more goals in the NHL playoffs are 56-38 in their next game.

That stat is probably just anecdotal, but it’s interesting to keep in the back of your mind when you see a team get its doors blown off.

In short, if you see the market overreact to a big loss, you’ll likely want to take advantage of the hysteria.

Implied probability

I mentioned implied probability above, so let’s define it here.

Every betting line correlates with an implied probability. For example, let’s say you are considering this line: Bruins are -130 against the Maple Leafs +110. At -130, the Bruins have an 54.3% chance to win when calculating for the vigorish. At +110, Toronto has a 45.7% chance.

If your numbers tell you Boston has better than a 54.3% chance of winning, you have an edge on the Bruins at -130. I’d encourage you to come up with a “win percentage” before looking at lines.

It is also important to remember that home-ice advantage actually does matter more in the postseason and that should be accounted for when coming up with your numbers.

Beware of narratives

The Greater NHL Media is a real hoot. Most of the “big” media people are in it for the column inches, the clicks and to be the guy or girl who people call “a hockey lifer” when they hang up their skates.

Thus, they will spin things and try and make something out of nothing to get some more pageviews.

Here are a couple of examples:

Last year the Los Angeles Kings, winners of two Stanley Cups this decade, played the Golden Knights — an expansion team — in the first round. The Knights had players with playoff experience, but the narrative drilled home was that the Kings would hang with the Knights by relying on their “Playoff Pedigree.”

In reality, the Knights were a better team and made quick work of the Kings.

Let’s stick with that same series for my second point here.

The “Must-Win” Narrative should not be weighted in your handicapping. Last spring, Vegas took a 2-0 series lead over Los Angeles. When the series shifted back to LA, the media talked about how Game 3 was a must-win game for the Kings. That clearly affected the market and offered bettors the opportunity to get the Knights at a great number.

Just because a team has its back against the wall doesn’t mean it wants it more. It just means that team is likely second-best.

The most important thing to remember

Any seasoned bettor will tell you that good bets lose and bad bets win. That’s gambling. The most important thing to keep in mind when betting on hockey — a sport played on ice using a puck made of vulcanized rubber — is that luck will play a huge factor in every game.

You can do everything right and still lose thanks to a puck hitting off a skate or a guy falling down. It happens — and when it happens to you, pick yourself up and move on to the next one.

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